Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Procrastination: What Role Wisdom?

Stupid is as stupid does.

Wisdom
a) accumulated philosophic or scientific learning - knowledge; b) ability to discern inner qualities and relationships - insight; c) good sense - judgment. In short, wisdom entails knowledge, insight, and judgment. What can we say about wisdom and procrastination? Can it be sagacious delay?

As the dictionary definition above makes clear, there are a number of different meanings for the word wisdom. In order to act wisely in relation to timely action, we need to consider each part of the definition of wisdom in turn. Then, we have to put them together, as one without the other is incomplete.

1 a: Knowledge - accumulated philosophic or scientific learning
Essentially, my blog addresses the "scientific learning" or what we "know" about procrastination. I've written a great deal already, and there's much more to come. What we know is that procrastination is defined as a voluntary, needless delay of an intended action that risks undermining our performance and well-being. We also know that there are many causal factors involved including aspects of our personality and the situation as well as our tendency to think about time in a biased way; for example, our propensity to think about future rewards as less appealing than immediate rewards. So there is accumulating knowledge about procrastination.

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Of course, "knowledge about" is never enough for wisdom. We might know that lack of exercise and junk foods are less than ideal for a healthy body, but not act wisely. We might know that smoking is bad for our health, yet we still see nurses outside of hospitals smoking. Is there truly wisdom reflected in this? I think not. We also need to consider insight and judgment to really grapple with wise action.

1 b: Insight - the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships
I have written about this so far in terms of insight into our own procrastination, our inner qualities. Whether this be an understanding of how our personality might serve as a resistance resource or liability, or how we might develop insight into our self-deception, certainly insight is essential for wise action.

Insight is necessary, perhaps, but again not sufficient. We may know that we always say things to ourselves like, "I work better under pressure" when in fact we don't really, but want to excuse ourselves in the moment (reducing the dissonance between our lack of action and our knowledge that we should act now). But, even with this insight into some of the most private aspects of our thinking, we won't necessarily act wisely.

1 c: Judgment - good sense
Good sense. Almost by definition, procrastination entails the lack of good sense. Remember, I've clearly said that procrastination is delay, but all delay isn't procrastination.

When I delay purposely in order to gather more information or to incubate an idea, I am not procrastinating. When I delay one task because an unexpected, but more important situation requires my attention, I'm not procrastinating on the first task that no longer gets done. I'm using good sense to set priorities in life. Emails from busy moms and dads make this clear, as does my own experience as a busy dad. Delay might be sagacious, reflecting good sense. On the other hand, procrastination reflects a lack of good sense, plain and simple.

Why? Consider the basic definition again. We have an intention to act. We are in control of our choices at the moment of our intention, yet we voluntarily and needlessly delay action even while we know that this delay may (probably will) undermine our effective performance. For example, instead of beginning to write an important report at the time we intend, we avoid the task making excuses about how it can wait while we organize the playlists on our iPod or search for new music or podcasts. Is this good sense?

My grandmother would tell you that it's not (ok, she never had an iPod ☺). She'd say, "There's a time to act. For goodness sake, have some common sense!" Of course, "common sense is good sense," she might add, and that speaks to how we learn to be wise in life.

The Development of Wisdom: Knowledge, Insight & Judgment
Knowledge. Despite epistemological debates, we have consensually agreed approaches to developing knowledge claims, particularly the scientific method. We know a great deal about many things through systematic investigation, including procrastination.

Insight. We develop insight when we begin to trust our intuitions and listen to ourselves a bit more. This is far less objective than what we count as "knowledge," but insight is another way of knowing, and it's clearly an important aspect of wisdom.

Judgment/Good sense. How do we develop this? Social-learning theorists explain how "good sense" can be learned through modeling, mentoring and simply muddling through life, learning by experience.

Good sense - how do we know when we have it? What was it that Forrest Gump said about this?

"Stupid is as stupid does."

Harsh? I don't think so. Good sense is evidenced in our actions.

So, how does wisdom relate to procrastination? We can know a lot about the topic, we can develop insight, but until we apply our "good sense" to the intention at hand, wisdom simply isn't evident.

What makes good sense when it comes to procrastination? What role wisdom? Knowing that the immediate reward is unrealistically seductive, insightfully recognizing that our propensity for anxiety is creating unrealistic barriers to action, we have the good sense to "just get started."

 

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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